The other side of GPAC²: Entering government in Nigeria

Fellows on our part-time PhD programme (GPAC2) work for governments and international bodies around the world. Their day jobs land them at the centre of events in geopolitical hotspots, meaning they are often better informed than even the best connected journalists. In this new series, we speak with alumni and fellows about historic events, hot topics and how their PhD research helped them in their careers. This time we asked PhD alumnus Joe Abah about his new role in the Nigerian Government.

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1. In your dissertation you studied good functioning institutions in weaker states, with the case study of Nigeria. You graduated in June 2012 from the GPAC2 programme, obtaining the desired PhD degree at Maastricht University. As of this month, you made a career change, which appears to be linked to your PhD topic of interest. You will now work as Director General of the Bureau of Public Service Reforms in the Office of the President of Nigeria. Your role is to lead the reform of public services in Nigeria. Can you briefly explain your new job?

JA: My main roles are to clarify government policies on the reform of public services and conduct research on implementation efforts and best practice models. I’ll also be launching reform action plans while coordinating, monitoring and evaluating reform implementation activities. Finally, at a broader level, my job requires me to nurture an environment of learning within the public service.

2. The topic of your dissertation matches very nicely with this new job function. Do you believe writing the dissertation was positive for this career change?

JA: Public sector reforms are what I have done all my working life. However, I believe that completing the PhD itself added the formal educational credibility to my long years of practical knowledge, and may have given me an edge over others. I believe the focus of my dissertation, ‘Strong Organisations in Weak States’, prepared me for the challenges ahead in the new job.

3. Your study ends with the development of the theory of convergent demand, indicating a good functioning institution needs Passion (in the form of a need for the institution), Pressure for the institution (national and international) and Power (in the form of ability and capacity to change). Will this model guide you in driving public service reform, and if so how?

JA: The model is based on many years of experience about what seems to work in difficult environments. It is somewhat explanatory in nature. Now that I work in this role in government, I can engineer some of the pressure (e.g., through peer review), help to demand the passion (through performance reporting) and ensure that organisations have the power to make the required changes (through proposed revisions to legislation). However,  the real value of my research – at least in terms of this new job – was my articulation of internal and external factors that affect performance, and, more importantly, the nuances that affect success in dysfunctional environments. These include Leadership, Funding, Recruitment Process, Performance Management, Pay, Technical Capacity and Public Support. My findings about what appears to work with regards to these issues will heavily shape my approach to the reform of all ministries, departments and agencies.

4. You will leave your current job as director of DFID’s governance programme in Nigeria. What will you miss most?

JA: The money! Public servants earn much less than development practitioners!! Seriously though, I will miss the people that I have worked with over the years and the level of expertise that I have had available to me. Skills like project management, monitoring and evaluation, strategic communications and change management are in short supply in the public service. However, the privilege of being able to exercise state power means that I can bring in some people with these skills, even if it means making a demand on DFID itself. Following my appointment, I think all donors in Nigeria know what’s coming!

Questions by School of Governance PhD Director Dr. Mindel van de Laar. Answers by PhD alumnus Joe Abah. Image: H.Pijpers.

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